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Maryland probation agents say understaffing threatens criminal justice reforms

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(Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

State probation and parole officers said Thursday that Maryland does not have enough workers to implement a landmark law designed to keep thousands of nonviolent offenders out of prison.

Already, probation agents said, a chronic staffing shortage has left many agents unable to check on offenders or file court reports in a timely way.

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"Right now, the state does not have enough probation agents and support staff to get the job done," Helen Humphries, a senior parole agent in Baltimore, said during a news conference. "We cannot do the jobs that we are called to do because we are inundated with work already."

Probation agents said that in addition to managing caseloads that exceed 100 offenders — well above the recommended 82 per agent — many are spending a day or two a week answering the phone or staffing the front desk in probation offices across the state where vacant secretarial jobs have not been filled.

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The problem, they said, will be exacerbated as the state adopts a sweeping criminal justice reform known as Justice Reinvestment that will eventually divert thousands of offenders to drug treatment and probation instead of longer prison terms.

"There is no way we can continue to do our job in an efficient manner," said Anthony Washington, a probation officer in Dundalk. "Frankly, sometimes we can't do our real jobs."

Thursday's news conference stoked discord between Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and the biggest union representing state workers.

For the third time in five weeks, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees publicly complained that Hogan's administration was threatening public safety by dragging its feet in filling vacant jobs. The union has also complained about understaffed prisons and mental health facilities.

Hogan's spokesman, Matthew A. Clark, offered a sharp critique of AFSCME's "partisan leaders," saying the union is "only interested in complaining, holding phony press conferences and spreading bogus statistics rather than working with the administration on anything whatsoever."

"After two straight years of pay raises, improved working conditions and a promise from the administration to address decades of chronic underpayments to state employees, these feeble and dishonest claims by AFSCME's desperate leaders are barely worthy of a response."

The friction with the union also comes as the Hogan administration announced that the state had underpaid as many as 13,000 workers for as long as 20 years because of a faulty payroll system. Union officials have been frustrated that the state could not identify who was underpaid or by how much.

State officials acknowledged Thursday that about 10 percent of the state's 695 probation agent jobs are vacant, resulting in the lowest level of staffing in the past four years.

But those officials say they plan to have an additional 60 workers start at the state's probation agent academy on Aug. 10, and then add as many more agents as needed in October.

Gary McLhinney, director of professional standards with the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, said he alerted union leadership to this plan two weeks ago. He said that once implemented, the probation agent staffing levels will be "at the highest they've ever been."

Union spokesman Jeff Pittman called McLhinney's statement "surprising news. … But it's a pleasant surprise."

McLhinney said there has been chronic understaffing of probation agents dating to at least 2013, but he dismissed concerns that agents are unable to do their jobs because they help with clerical work.

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"Sometimes, people have to pitch in and do paperwork," he said.

Lawmakers who helped pass the Justice Reinvestment Act this year said they were sensitive to concerns about the workload for probation officers, as well as drug treatment counselors who are already in short supply.

The idea of the law is to save money on prisons by spending more on those services.

"The point of Justice Reinvestment is we can do both: cut costs and make communities safer," said Del. Erek Barron, an attorney and Prince George's County Democrat who worked on the bill.

Sen. Bobby Zirkin, chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee and a Baltimore County Democrat, said that "there's no immediacy" to ramping up the ranks of probation officers. He said concerns about shifting resources was a primary reason the law doesn't take effect until 2017 and is phased in over 10 years.

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